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The Power of words

My strength, when I was at school was Maths rather than English. I loved the rhythm, pattern and the problem solving of it. But, as an adult working with people as part of my job, I have discovered the power of language and the impact that the words you use can have. Words can evoke strong feelings and what words you choose to start a sentence with can have the power to make or break a meeting. They have the power to build up or the power to emotionally damage.

Responsibility with words

Words are cheap. They can be easily used and don't cost anything. You can get a whole load of them from any online thesaurus for free. Unlike a car though, you do not need a licence to use them. But, like a car, words in the wrong hands can be a lethal. With our use of words comes a social responsibility, but many don't think of the impact they can have. For example, "You're not very good at presenting," may well be true from the person who is saying it. But these words have the power to become long term damage that causes the person to have fixed thinking about themselves. Those words can become internal interference telling the person that they are not a good presenter and become a false ceiling on who they can become if the person lets them.

To use words well, we need to ensure that they are used with Emotional Intelligence and Emotional Literacy. Emotional intelligence comes in many forms. At its core, it is empathy for another person's point of view. It is the observing of a person's emotional state, it is understanding what it is like to be the receiver in a social situation or conversation. Emotional Literacy is the ability to understand feelings in yourself and in others and to express yourself in a way that understands this and seeks to express yourself in a way that finds the best solution in a situation.

How you start a sentence - helping the inner chimp

Steve Peters, in his book 'The Chimp Paradox', talks about how we have an emotional part to our brain (Chimp) and a logical part (Human). The Chimp part will process language to see if there is any threat. Therefore, starting the sentence with something that helps the receiver's emotional part of the brain to feel safe, will make or break a message being received. For example, if you have an angry customer or member of your community and you start the sentence with, "I'm sorry but I can't deal with your concern right now," it is likely to get an emotional reaction. What the receiver hears is, "you are not interested in me or my problem." However, if you start with, "I would really like to help you, and I can see how this situation is making you feel very angry. I hope that you can understand that currently I have a person on the phone whose mother has just died and I need to help them. If it is ok with you, I will try to help her first and if you take a seat I will arrange for someone to get you a hot drink whilst you are waiting and I will help you as soon as I can." Now, they still might be very angry, but you are more likely to de-escalate things. So what are the key tips for helping with this?

What does the person need to hear? What words are best placed to help with this?

Make sure that these are near the start of your sentence.

What things are likely to get an emotional reaction?

Don't place these things in your sentence and certainly not at the beginning.

What things will create an atmosphere where someone is able to take some constructive steps for improvement?

Create that environment in the words you say, your body language and in your environment.

So, let's take the person earlier, who told someone that they are not very good at presenting. An emotionally literate version would be more like: "I love the way that you build relationship with people and the content that you had in your presentation today had some groundbreaking thinking. Would you like some feedback on you could develop how listeners will take more on board?" This is not threatening. It helps the person see what is working well, and they have the option of exploring how they can develop their presentation.

The three letter words

Interestingly, there are two three letter words that have amazing power. In grammar terms, they are both conjunctions (a word used to connect clauses or sentences or to coordinate words in the same clause). They are the words, 'and' and 'but'. Both of them short, perhaps insignificant words. However, I think they have to be used carefully. One has the power to connect, to help the listener want to engage. The other has the power to cause tension with the listener. Let me give you an example. You are meeting with someone to give them feedback on their performance. Let's see the impact of the use of each 3 letter word.

"Well done, I liked how you spoke clearly and passionately to the group BUT you could develop how your stories develop the listeners' thinking."


"Well done, I liked how you spoke clearly and passionately to the group AND have you thought about how your stories develop the listeners' thinking?"

Tim O'Brien, in his book 'Inner Story' on the chapter on being a better leader, talks about how any praise in the first clause goes missing in the process of patterning because the word 'but' invalidates the praise at the start of the sentence. Praise hasn't softened the criticism at all; it has actually helped to harden it.

So here is a challenge for your next week. Ban the use of 'but'. Exchange it each time for 'and' and see the impact on you and the receiver.

Good words respect people and lift them up

You will also notice how the second version also has the second clause in the form of a question rather than a statement. How we use language, how we allow the receiver to still make choices on what happens next by using a question, allows the receiver to still remain in control. If they are in a good emotional position, they will engage in the thinking and maybe even ask for further feedback. If they are not, they will not engage but the question is there to allow them to consider it further when they are ready for it. The purpose of feedback should be to encourage, to help someone recognise their strengths and encourage them to become and even better version of themselves. The key thing is to consider the person. An even better version of that feedback sentence is

"Well done, I liked how you spoke clearly and passionately to the group. Do you recognise that you have a talent in your passion in this area?" . . . I also liked the way that you had stories as a part of this presentation. Stories have the power to engage listeners AND would you like some feedback on how to make them even more impactful in developing the listeners thinking?"

In this version, you invite the receiver to decide if they would like to have feedback. They may not be ready for it. They may not be used to it.

So your next challenge is to invite the person to hear feedback rather than just giving it to them. See what difference that makes to how they take the feedback on.

Imagine, if like driving a car, you needed a licence before you could go out alone and use words. Now, of course, it is part of basic liberty that we have freedom of speech and rightly so. However, when we recognise the power of words and that they have the power to lift people up or put down, it is crucial that we use them wisely. When I passed my driving test, my Grandad said to me, "just remember you are driving a lethal weapon." Words I have remembered and passed on to my children as they passed their test. It is the same with words - use them wisely and use them to lift people up to reach their amazing potential.

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